NC health officials warn of stomach flu

A doctor examines a patient.
February 11, 2010 9:00:00 PM PST
State health officials caution North Carolinians about norovirus after several outbreaks that sickened more than 180 people in Jackson County and 200 people in Raleigh. Noroviruses cause the "stomach flu," or gastroenteritis, and can't be seen or tasted but spread easily from person to person.

"More than a million North Carolinians experience a norovirus-related illness each year," said State Health Director Dr. Jeff Engel. "There are steps everyone can take to prevent illness or stop it from spreading to other people after you become ill.

"You can contract norovirus by eating contaminated food or ingesting the virus after touching contaminated surfaces. Therefore, it's always important to thoroughly wash your hands often; don't only rely on hand sanitizers."

Officials say frequently wash your hands, especially after toilet visits and changing diapers and before eating or preparing food and carefully wash ready-to-eat foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

They also say thoroughly clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces immediately after an episode of illness by using a bleach-based household cleaner. And after an episode of illness, immediately remove and wash, with hot water and soap, all clothing or linens that may be contaminated with the virus.

People who are infected with norovirus should not handle, prepare or serve food while they have symptoms and for three days after they recover from their illness.

Food that may have been contaminated by an ill person should be placed in a trash container in a securely closed plastic bag.

Engel reiterated that because the virus can be spread for as much as three weeks after a person feels better, it is vital to follow recommended hand-washing measures after using the bathroom and before handling or preparing food.

Noroviruses are a group of contagious viruses found in an infected person's stool or vomit that causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and some stomach cramping. Illness caused by norovirus infection also is called the stomach flu (unrelated to the flu or influenza), viral or acute gastroenteritis and food poisoning. Dehydration is the most common complication and may require intravenous replacement fluids. People with weakened immune systems can be particularly vulnerable.

People can become infected with the virus in several ways like by eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with norovirus, touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus, and then placing their hands in their mouths and having direct contact with another person who is infected.

The illness often begins suddenly, usually about 24-to-48 hours after ingestion of the virus, and the infected person may feel very sick. In most people, symptoms last for between one and two days. People infected with norovirus are contagious from the moment they begin feeling ill to at least three days after recovery, with some remaining contagious as long as two weeks after recovery.

Officials say if you develop symptoms of norovirus to contact your health care provider or local health department.

For more information on norovirus illness, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online at: www.cdc.gov.

For ways to disinfect your household following a norovirus-related illness, go to: www.deh.enr.state.nc.us.

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